William Butler Yeats Biography

Early Years

Poet, playwright and politician W.B. Yeats is remembered as one of the key figures of modern literature.

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland on June 13, 1865. He was the eldest of four children born to Susan and John Yeats. William spent his childhood in County Sligo, Ireland. Because the Yeats were an aristocratic family, William grew up as a member of the declining Protestant Ascendancy. Consequently, his childhood on into his adulthood was over-shadowed by the rising nationalism there in Ireland. In the mist of these changes, Yeats studied poetry, Irish folklore and was intrigued with mysticism. With revolution in the air, his poetry would be affected for years to come.

William's father John Yeats decided to move his family to England in 1867. At first the Yates children were educated at home. However by January 1877 William and his siblings was placed in public school. Yeats was at best a fair student and until 1880 would attend school in England. However, for economic reasons, the family returned to Dublin, Ireland late in 1880.

Embracing his Destiny as a Poet

In October 1881, William resumed his education at Erasmus Smith High there in Dublin. Because his father's portrait studio was nearby, William spent a lot of time there. As a result, he met many of Dublin's writers and artists. In 1884, he enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art with the intentions of becoming a painter like his dad. However as fate would have it, he moved in the direction of a writer not a painter.

While at the Metropolitan School for the Arts, he met a poet named George Russell. The two had similar goals, dreams and enthusiasms. As a result Russell and Yeats became lifelong friends. The pair also founded the Dublin Hermetic Society in 1885 for the purpose of exploring mysticism. During this time Yeats published his first poems "The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson." Later in 1887 after moving back to London, two American Newspapers would recruit Yeats as a literary correspondent.

Abbey Theatre

Though his father, William had already met many well known artist and writers such as Oscar Wild, George Bernard Shaw and William Morris. Over the next few years he would meet people who would have great impact on the remainder of his life. In 1889 Yeats released The "Wanderings of Oisin and other poems" and he was introduced to Maud Gonne. This lady would be one of the greatest influences on his life. Gonne was a beautiful and passionate lady, who was heavily involved in the Irish Nationalist movement. She would become Williams deepest love. In 1891, he visited Gonne and proposed marriage and was rejected. Although she admired his poetry, she refused his repeated offers of marriage. However, with encouragement from Gonne, Yeats produced some great nationalistic plays such as "The Countess Kathleen" and "Cathleen ni Houlihan." Later in 1903, to the horror of Yeats, she married the Irish nationalist Major John MacBride. This marriage inspired him to write the poem "No Second Troy." Despite the refusals and disappointment, she was still his ideal woman, using her image in some of his poems.

Yeats was always the organizer and he liked to mingle with people. In 1891 he co-founded the Rhymers' Club and in 1892 he joined the Irish Literary Society of Dublin. A short time later in 1894, he met Olivia Shakespear and in 1896 he met Lady Augusta Gregory and John Synge.These relationships resulted in the formation of the Irish Literary Theatre, which became the Irish National Theatre Society. Out of this would come the Abbey Theatre in 1904; Yeats and Synge would share directorship of this theatre for a few years.

Ezra Pound

In 1909 the American poet Ezra Pound, came to London to meet William Yeats. The relationship had a rough start when Pound decided to publish some of Yeats poems with some unauthorized changes.The changes Pound made showed his dislike for the Victorian style of writing. Pound had been indirectly influenced by Japanese Noh and in time Yeats would integrate this into his writings. Around this time, Olivia Shakespeare began holding weekly Salons. These meets were usually attended by Ezra Pound and other prominent writers of the time. Also in 1914 against the wishes of her parents, Pound married Mrs. Shakespeare's daughter Dorthy. Soon after the wedding, Pound used money received from Olivia Shakespeare to help support writers James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. In addition, Ezra Pound acted as Yeats' secretary between 1912 and 1916. With the influence of Ezra Pound, Yeats poetry was once again changed. Over time his poetry begun to show the conciseness and brevity that was found in the best poems of his later years.

Easter Rising 1916

During the first decade of the twentieth century, while Yeats performed his duties as director of the Abbey Theatre, he slowly became inactive in the Irish Independence movement. Maud Gonne was in Paris with her exiled husband MacBride and William had no one to encourage him. However in 1916 that was about to change. Inspired by the unsuccessful Easter Rising of Irish Republicans in Dublin, Ireland against the British and the execution of Maud's husband McBride, Yates was once again active in the movement. He responded by writing "Easter 1916," a moving expression of his feelings of romantic admiration, shock and reflection.

Later Years

Now that Yeats was fifty-one years old, he desired to marry and have a son. Since the husband of Maud Gonne was deceased and Goone had a series of personal catastrophes, Yeats thought she may remarry now. In the summer of 1916, he asked for her hand one last time and was turned down. Yeats finally married Georgie Hyde-Lees in 1917; Despite the age diffrence, it was a successful marriage, producing one son and daughter. From 1922 until 1928 Yeats was a senator for Ireland. During 1923 he received the Nobel Prize for literature. Ironically enough his later works such as "The Tower," "The Winding Stair" and "New Poems," were better than his earlier writings. Yeats continued to write throughout his remaining years and in 1932 he founded the Irish Academy of Letters. Later in August 1938, Yeats attended the premier of his play "Purgatory"; this would be the last time he visited his beloved Abbey Theatre.

Final Years

On January 18, 1939 while semi-retired in Roquebrune France, William Yeats passed away. Following his burial in France and according to his wishes, his body was relocated to County Sligo, Ireland in September 1948.

William Yeats had a huge influence on modern writing both in English and Irish literature. He is truly one of the best poets of the twentieth century. William Butler Yeats continues to cast a large shadow that is seen and felt today.

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Comments 12 comments

snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada

Hello Coolmon2009, really enjoyed your WB Yeats biography and readings. The last one Cloths of Heaven recited by Anthony Hopkins was so moving. Regards, snakeslane.


Coolmon2009 profile image

Coolmon2009 4 years ago from Texas, USA Author

@snakeslane - Yes I agree Yeats poetry really comes alive when read aloud. Thanks for comments on my article.


Debby Bruck profile image

Debby Bruck 4 years ago

Lovely. I enjoyed listening to the round sound of "The Stolen Child" video and the echoes on "The Cloths of Heaven"

Blessings, Debby


Coolmon2009 profile image

Coolmon2009 4 years ago from Texas, USA Author

@Debby Bruck - Yes I think the "Stolen Child" is interesting and a bit creepy too. My favorite is "The Cloths of Heaven" beautiful video and reading :)


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi, Coolmon, congratulations you have completely captured me with Yeats! I obviously have heard of him but never took any particular notice, but after starting to read, I become so interested in him and his life I listened to his poems, and I love them! 'when you are old' made me smile, and the 'The Stolen Child was above and beyond fantastic, and the video was perfect. I am now a fan, and that's what its all about, thank you! rated up! cheers nell


Coolmon2009 profile image

Coolmon2009 4 years ago from Texas, USA Author

@Nell Rose - I am glad you like the article and its nice to hear from you again :)


Doc Wordinger profile image

Doc Wordinger 4 years ago from Manchester, UK

Thanks for writing this Coolmon. You've actually caused me to extract my dusty old copy of Yeats' Selected Poetry from the bookshelf where it's been sitting, undisturbed, for two or three years. I'll take in a few poems before I go to bed.

I'd say that The Lake Isle of Innisfree is probably my favourite Yeats poem. I once printed it from the internet and pinned it to the wall of my apartment, until it crumpled and fell down.


Coolmon2009 profile image

Coolmon2009 4 years ago from Texas, USA Author

@Doc Wordinger - I am glad to know you now have renewed interest in Mr Yeats. Thanks for your comments :)


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

Thanks for this wonderful biography of William Butler Yeats. It has been many years since I have read anything of Yeats poetry. Listened to the first video and will come back for more. Wonderful hub!!! Votes up!


Coolmon2009 profile image

Coolmon2009 4 years ago from Texas, USA Author

@Peggy W - Thanks for your comments :)


Shinkicker profile image

Shinkicker 4 years ago from Scotland

Great Hub Coolmon, I'm interested in Yeats now after hearing The Waterboys playing a concert of musical interpretations of his words.

Here's an interview with Mike Scott. Worth checking out.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlYxOUn91Tk


Coolmon2009 profile image

Coolmon2009 4 years ago from Texas, USA Author

@Shinkicker - Thanks for your comments and the link, i will check it out.

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